Crazy Town author Robyn Doolittle on Social Media and Crisis Management

“Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook provide eyes, and often ears, everywhere.”

On September 24, Pilot will host the next event in our Co-Pilot Storytelling Series, bringing together three high-profile panelists to discuss the ins and outs of crisis communications, including on one of the most powerful platforms: social media.

In advance of Doug Ford Is My Co-Pilot, we offer a preview of our panelists’ thoughts on how to handle the modern scandal.

Robyn Doolittle

Robyn Doolittle is an investigative reporter with The Globe and Mail, and the author of the bestselling Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, which will be released in paperback on September 16th 2014.

Pilot: Lanny Davis, a counsellor to Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, once said: “Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself”. Do you think full disclosure is the best policy when it comes to handling a crisis?

RD: I guess we see, over and over again, that in the end, stuff comes out. I think it is not wise to assume that something won’t become public. From the perspective of a journalist, I would hope that especially public officials are open and transparent in a time of crisis.

Pilot: We live in a time of ubiquitous smartphones, Twitter, and Instagram. How does social media now play into the discovery, coverage and response to scandals?

RD: I would say there are two things: one, as a journalist, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook provide eyes, and often ears, everywhere in the city all the time, so it’s an incredibly valuable tool – especially when doing research for a story. What I think is also interesting about social media is it allows you to gauge reaction to a story very quickly. Twitter can become a bit of an echo chamber, and so make sure that it isn’t your only source of understanding how someone is taking something – but it is very interesting, for sure.

Pilot: As the media landscape changes, with fewer outlets and less space for investigative journalism, do you think we’ll see a change in how companies, politicians and high profile individuals handle crises?

RD: I don’t know, I would say certainly that the media landscape is changing, but I would still say that there a lot of outlets that are still doing investigative journalism and it was always very expensive. I think that what we’re seeing is a continued commitment to investigative journalism especially in Canada, which is great. I haven’t been in this game that long, I’m nine years into my career and I’ve seen a shift in media but I personally haven’t noticed a drop off in outlets that are investing in investigative journalism and I hope that continues.

Pilot: What do you see as the major PR/crisis communications lesson provided by the behaviour of Toronto mayor Rob Ford?

RD: I don’t know, but I think it would make for a really interesting case study!  In some ways, he’s defied all conventional wisdom in how you handle crises. In other ways, people trying to draw lessons or trying to emulate his strategy would find themselves unsuccessful. I think that the perfect storm around Rob Ford, the man, the character that he is, the things that make him who he is, and that the public love him and hate him, have all enabled him to break all the rules. If you just tried to break all the rules and didn’t have those other factors working for you, I don’t know if you’d be able to. Personally, I think that the phenomenon of Rob Ford will give politicians who find themselves in hot water some new options, like, maybe they don’t resign, and maybe they can weather a storm, so I think that is something we’ll see in the future – people trying to hang on a little longer.

Pilot: In your opinion, who are some of the best companies, politicians and celebs at dealing with bad news?

RD: Maple Leaf Foods was the best one that I ever covered after the listeria crisis. The CEO got right out in front of it, he had journalists going through the plant and made a very, what seemed to be, a very genuine statement to the public in a commercial, promising to do better, he apologized. It seemed really effective. As for celebrities, I don’t know. Who cares?

Stay tuned for answers from Christopher Eby of Sussex Strategy Group and read the responses from John O’Leary, Manger of Communications for Coca-Cola Canada.